Ecstatic Voyage

I read Condomnauts by Yoss, the Cuban sci-fi writer. The book is set in the 24th century amongst the work of the “Contact Specialists”, also referred to as “condomnauts”. These are the special category of astronaut who have to ensure friendly negotiations with newly-encountered alien species are cemented in what is accepted as the conventional way in this galaxy: with sexual intercourse.

This is not a very long novel and there is not much story beyond the setting-up of the scenario, which employs very standard sci-fi materials and models. Despite its premise, it is not a very sensual work, and the author spends more time trying to deal with conceptual complexities than imagining new experiences. This would be better as a source book for graphic artists turning it into a visual world, or expansion in to a full CGI blockbuster. The style of the narrative gets overly cramped with detail at times, and there is the usual inconsistency in how far the voice is away from us present readers. The origin of the “condomnaut” term is apparently lost in history, yet in dozens of respects this narrator is tuned into the concerns of humans living at the start of the 21st century… because of course this sort of light satire is always about its own present day. Will authoritarian Germans still be labelled as “Nazis” in 300 years time? Surely that will be forgotten in countries that were never in World War 2, it’s already tired in Britain.

The narrator is Josue Valdes. Future human history is what you might expect from the sci-fi writings of 50 years ago: there was a brief, catastrophic war, after which humans took to colonising outer space. Josue grew up in Rubble City, outside the diseased ruins of old Havana. It was a tough life surviving as a street kid in that world, full of mutant humans and animals, but there were fortunes to be made betting on races between over-sized cockroaches and other new fauna. We get the hard sci-fi explanations about how large insects can feasibly grow to, and the different capacities of lifeforms using lungs or tracheal passages.

The leap into interstellar space came with an encounter at the edge of the Solar System with the Qhigarian race, who travel around in giant Worldships that contain millions of inhabitants. In a wonderfully simple explanation, it turns out they simply gave the humans – and all other species in the galaxy they encounter – a supply of special hyperdrives for travelling anywhere in the galaxy. They apparently inherited these from the extinct previous race the Taraplins; nobody knows how any of it works, but it doesn’t matter. The Quigarians also stipulate the Protocol For First Contact, which is how the Contact Specialists get their work.

Much more ancient than humanity, and supposedly Taraplin in origin (since the Qhigarians insist that they inherited this curious custom from their mentors), the odd interspecies etiquette known as the Protocol for First Contact has been well received by almost all the sentient species in the Milky Way.

Briefly stated, here’s how it works: if you meet the representatives of an Alien species off in space for the first time – and if you want to make your peaceful intentions clear, in case some mutually advantageous trading might take place between your two kinds at some future date, as opposed to immediate mutual destruction – you show them that you decline to consider them Aliens, at least for a while.

In other words, you happily “sleep” with them. Or at least pretend that you’re doing it happily. Even if afterward, paradoxically, you can’t sleep for days just thinking about it.

Because there are of course technical issues in making contact with a wide range of different bodyforms, the profession of condomnaut has thrown up a number of different generations. Josue is a first-gen Specialist.

…Our bodies weren’t modified to facilitate making contact with other species….

In the beginning, of course, all of us Contact Specialists were first-gen. But the same thing happened as with bodybuilding before steroids: it was too clean to last.

My slippery Nerys is a perfect example of the second generation. She was born 100 percent human, in the polluted ruins of old Barcelona, on Earth… She was the first Catalan to undergo body-modification surgery… She emerged from it transformed, of her own free will, into the mermaid she is today: webbed hands, fins down her spine, tail instead of legs. When she’s out of water she has to use an antigrav platform to get around. But her speciality was, of course, the many Alien species that evolved in aquatic environments, which up till then had been a hard row to hoe for condomnauts. Her Alien partners generally hadn’t been completely satisfied with “sleeping with” creatures so biotechnologically underdeveloped that they had to use cumbersome scuba gear and crude propulsion systems to survive and get around in their liquid environments….

The third generation was a daring leap: sidestepping the phenotype modifications and daring to go straight to the human genotype itself.

But transgenic chimeras were a huge disappointment. Birdmen, fluorine-men, and other such exotic creatures were so anatomically and physiologically distinct from your average Homo sapiens they simply didn’t feel they were humans. Nor did they see why they should sacrifice themselves for humans….

…the first fourth-generation comdomnauts… were cyborgs. Half human, half machine. But a conceptually new variety: it wasn’t a matter of adding cybernetic limbs or computational systems, but of total integration. Each and every cell of these amazing individuals had been modified when their developing embryos were at the morula stage, by inserting a set of nanomachines that could drastically alter them.

The human race has spread out to new colony worlds, and it seems to gave divided them up according to the political map of the world circa 2010. There is a Japanese planet, a German planet, and our hero lives at Nu Barsa, the Catalonia-in-space of the future.

The small asteroids containing the force field and the artificial sun, a triad of barely visible black spots at the zenith, surrounding the constant fusion blaze of our “pocket star” are exactly fifty kilometres up in the sky.

Not technically sky, but whatever. What matter is that the volume under the “roof” is not only big enough to holoproject a full sky but for genuine water vapor clouds to form and float overhead, along with helicopters, turbocopters, gravimobiles, and all sorts of aerial vehicles, and plenty of room to spare.

The “ground” is a simple layer, two or three meters thick, or organic topsoil over an expansive force field that knits together the dozen or so asteroids containing the generators. All Algolese technology. We use it even though we don’t understand the mathematics behind it, and our physicists swear up and down that no Unified Field Theory is possible.

Although the author is Cuban, there is no reference to socialism of any kind in this world; we are in the competitive race for resources and there are still space cruisers and frigates with weapons for fighting interstellar wars. This is not so far from the universe of The Expanse, but expanded a bit further and with humans now openly buying and adopting alien devices to keep up with a galactic community where they would otherwise be somewhat backward and irrelevant. We could see the cosmic generosity of the Quigarians, sharing the secret tech of their ancestors in order to get everyone moving, as an example of trans-species mutual aid, but it turns out every gift has a hidden cost in this realm.

I think it would be jolly good for Netflix or Amazon to buy this and rewrite it as much as necessary. The book ends before it has barely begun.

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